“I’m not trying to hold-back or play it close to the best,” Mullen said Tuesday. “I will be a happy guy to name a starting quarterback and find somebody that has separated themselves from the other three.”
Until a particular quarterback makes Mullen happy, all must be patient. The competition continues with four, count ‘em, four legitimate candidates arriving in August regarded as equals.
Of course at this moment the ‘competition’ is mostly unsupervised. Beyond their hours in the Seal Complex weightroom under Nick Savage’s eye, the quarterback quartet contend with each other in daily informal drills with receivers and backs. Then again junior Damian Williams, sophomores Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley, and redshirt frosh Nick Tiano may just be performing for the judges who count most.
Their teammates. If the rest of the roster doesn’t buy-in then coach opinions don’t count for much.
Fortunately a senior (literally) judge is giving a thumbs-up so far. “I can’t wait to see these young guys take the role,” Fred Ross said Tuesday.
That would be the role filled for mostly-three seasons by Dak Prescott, two of those years netting first-team All-SEC quarterback honors. Prescott wasn’t just a quarterback, either, but the undisputed Big Dog of 2014 and ’15. In fact, “Dak was such a strong leader that there is a little bit of that missing,” Mullen said.
“Good and bad, he was almost such a strong leader that other guys didn’t have to step up. So, there’s a lot of things going on.”
Well, leadership will ultimately be settled in the locker room, on the field, and maybe most of all on the scoreboard. Winners become leaders. This makes a winning quarterback all the more important in 2016. When the spring game ended none had grabbed the top spot. “No one really separated themselves to pull away,” said Mullen.
“Whether it’s all the extra work they put in, if it happens in the first week of training camp, great. If it has to happen game week, fantastic.”
The coach isn’t quipping about waiting to opening game-week to settle a starter, either. Whether that’s fantastic or not is worth wondering. Ross for his part doesn’t seem at all concerned based on what he’s seen in June and July drills.
“They’ve all stepped up because they know they’re going to have to play this year,” Ross said. “They’re all looking good. They all can throw, really far. They all have strong arms, maybe stronger than Dak! It’s going to be exciting to see how this unfolds.”
Now all who got to watch bowl camp and open spring practices agree, there are some big arms on board. Staley’s stands out most as he can even throw ‘punts’ for return game practice if necessary, often with better hang-time than kickers manage. Fitzgerald can wing it well himself and with more accuracy and placement.
Williams’ height might not give the same downfield view as the two taller kids’ but the older quarterback can release it quickly and get the ball where needed. And if Tiano doesn’t have the same sheer zip on passes he knows where to throw and when to deliver with poise equal or maybe better than his elders.
“To be quite frank, all four of them do things really, really well that can give us a chance to win,” quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson has said.
“I’m excited about those guys,” Ross said. “They’re going to bring a new look to our offense.”
Yes, the new 2016 look. Mullen reminded that things are changing on this side of the playbook. “Because we’re playing with a different quarterback.
“And we’ve got a lot of good players coming back on the offensive side of the ball. All our running backs are back (including two talented redshirts). We have some starters coming back on the offensive line. We have to depend on the running game a little more this year than we did last year.”
And should one back become the ’16 version of say Josh Robinson or Vick Ballard or Boobie Dixon, then the ground game gets back to what was normal in Mullen’s earlier MSU seasons. But that doesn’t diminish demands on the quarterback. Fortunately all four of these can haul the ball on their own steam, either called or keeping. And there are just too many play-making receivers not to make use off, early and often and productively.
Which all comes around to decision-making at the line of scrimmage. This, only real games can develop. Ross said veteran Dogs are doing what they can to prepare these quarterbacks for inevitable chaos on the field.
“Just let him know things are going to go bad in a game and you’re going to have to put that behind and keep going. We’re putting the work together, and if you stay ready you never have to get ready.”
Real getting-ready begins August 2 with the first preseason practice. That leaves a couple more weeks for informal but important drilling with fellow Dogs. Ross repeats his own positive review on how the four quarterbacks are performing in this post-Prescott era.
“I’d say it’s almost the same. The only difference is I was around Dak a lot longer. They all saw how Dak used to work and I think they all got the blueprint how to do it. Thing is just having to do it.”